Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

I torture myself unnecessarily with choosing prize-winners for my dopey contests; ‘unnecessarily’ because obviously it’s not the Man Booker Prize, the Acadamy Awards or the Nobel Peace Prize yet I appreciate immensely the thought, effort, wit and panache involved every time. So while I might set these things to play around with I might avoid placing myself in these excrutiating judgemental positions.

Having said that, I do at least owe a final podium for Bargain Basement Part I and Part II. The quality was as high and heroic as ever; and to be honest I can’t slip a cigarette paper between Simon and The Imaginary Reviewer … please accept my humble offer of a Big Fish each. And for consistent excellence both here and at Bored Neoclassical Guy, a long overdue Splendid Award for Eric.


Now, back to frivolity today.

Don’t ask me why but I was watching one of those fashion design competitions. The remit in this particular episode was to design an outfit for a model and a matching ensemble for a pet dog — not, of course, a Bull Mastiff, or an Elk Hound, or a Doberman Pinscher (something that still bears at least a passing resemblance to its lupine ancestry); but one of those pocket-sized numbers that fits in a handbag or bicycle basket or haversack. The sort of pooch that might even get squeezed into a bottle or a vase for all I know.

dog bag web

What struck me and intrigued me more than the fashion, though, was the interchangeability of the names of the models and the dogs.

There is a theory called ‘nominative determinism’ which states that one’s name can go some way to dictating one’s choice of career and so forth. Clearly it does not always work, or my surname — Davenport — would consign me to life as a useful desk or a comfy sofa.

The lavatory ballcock was invented by a gentleman called Thomas Crapper. It is widely believed that he invented the flushing toilet itself and that his name was the root of the word ‘crap’ and ‘crapper’; but in fact those highly useful words preceded him. So perhaps his future was prenatally and preternaturally written in, er, well, you know.

The same theory accounts for the late Keith Moon’s little-known secondary career as an astronomer, and Dorothy Parker’s as a garage valet.

So perhaps an exotic name (or at least a canine-sounding name, wierdly) at birth steers some people towards a modelling career. As long as they are also tall, I suppose.

So here’s a mixed-up list of the names of the models and the dogs from that show — all genuine, and an equal number of each. The game (not contest!) is to decide which is model and which is dog:

Lyndsay; Toni; Pepito; Molly; Danielle; Chanel; Camilla; Clarissa; Sparkle; Morgan; Nazri; Jia; Lil’A; Marilinda; Carly; Sophia; Javi; Patty Cake; Talulah; Katia; Katie; Flex.


Carly? Toni? Pepito? Flex? C’m’ere, girl!


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OK, no announcement just yet on the last contest. Instead, let’s for now take the premise of the literature challenge and head a short distance downmarket, into the area of popular television — specifically, for our first example, American cop and detective shows. Imagine how much more cheaply these productions could have been made:

Shoplifting, She Wrote

CSI Peoria

McMillan and Friend


The Streets of Shawnee, Kansas

Diagnosis: Mugging

Skirting Jordan

Juvie Break

Rhode Island Five-O

Veronica Moon

The Rockford Notebook

Trespassing: Life on the Street


Peashooter, P.I.




You might like to choose your own genre, such as, for instance:

Sci-Fi: Doctor When

Comedy: Acquaintances

Entertainment: Tasmania’s Got Talent

Go on; you know you want to.

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Bargain Basement

First: the All New Horsemen of the Apocalypse competition winner. Thanks to everybody for your outstanding entries, and a compilation of the best would include at least one from everybody’s list. But this time I’ll do the whole tear-off-an-Elastoplast-quickly thing and just blurt it out.

Oh so close was our runner up, The Imaginary Reviewer, with the inclusion of equine-replacement transportation so nearly clinching it. A big hand, please, lazengennulmen. But the winner is tennyson ee hemingway. Take a bow, Sir, and your choice of award:


Now, given my indecisiveness I’m not sure why I do this but here we go again with another competition.

In these straitened times we are all looking for ways to cut corners, make ends meet, make do and mend, darn our own yoghurt and so forth. So I got to thinking (while stealing ever so slightly from “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”) about how some of the world’s great novels might have been more cheaply entitled. So here is a list of Credit Crunch Classics:

Lady Chatterley’s Brother D H Lawrence

The War of the Worms H G Wells

Fahrenheit 4 Ray Bradbury

The Perfectly Reasonable Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald

For Whom the Kazoo Blows Ernest Hemingway

Atlas Raised an Eyebrow Ayn Rand

Squinting in Gaza Aldous Huxley

The Maltese Sparrow Dashiell Hammett

Zen and the Art of Mending a Puncture Robert M Pirsig

A Couple of Weeks of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez

Love in the Time of Feeling a Bit Under the Weather Gabriel García Márquez

Teatime’s Children Salman Rushdie

A Tale of One Village Charles Dickens (“It was the best of times. That’s it”)

À la Recherche du Cléfs Perdu Marcel Proust

The Gentle Breeze William Shakespeare

The Old Man and the Pond Ernest Hemingway

Paradise Mislaid. Down the Back of the Sofa, Perhaps John Milton

The Lord of the Brooch J R R Tolkien

On the Sidewalk Jack Kerouac

Catch 2.0 Joseph Heller


You are charged with the task, should it please you so to do, of adding your own. Enjoy!

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Advisory: Look out — here follows stuff about cricket and cremation.

Sport serves as a metaphor, even a proxy, for myriad rivalries: nation against nation, city against city, suburb against suburb. In soccer/football — let’s call it soccerball for convenience —  just look at the genuine enmity that lies between FC Barcelona and Réal Madrid, and the mutual hatred shared by Manchester United and Liverpool; or at intra-city level there’s United and City, who both claim the sobriquet ‘Manchester’s team’. For sectarian spice (and some tasty violence, let’s face it) look no farther than Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.

Baseball has the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Mets, the Cubs and the White Sox, and the Dodgers and … well, everybody. Nobody likes the Dodgers, right?

I don’t know all that much about Aussie Rules Football, but I’m given to understand that Carlton and Collingwood share, shall we say, a similarly keen sense of competition.

At international level, the apotheosis of the perennial love-hate relationship between England and Australia is The Ashes, the third match of the 2009 series of which begins on Thursday this week. At which point I should point cricket neophytes towards an explanation: Wikipedia will do for now.

Suffice to say, The Ashes is a quasi-biennial series of five matches of five-day cricket spread across the summer, alternating between Blighty and the Antipodes, that has been fought over since 1882, and which serves, even in these less-romantic and more hard-nosed professional times, to define those summers. To make a facile comparison, it’s like an elasticated seven-week World Series. But with tea and cakes.

How this cricket series came by its name has been discussed to the point of tedium. But this is cricket after all; you’re supposed to be bored, people seem to think. So I’ll run through it again, point by point.

  • When Australia visited England in 1882, they arrived for the second Test at The Oval, London, having not won any of the eight matches the two nations had thus far contested.
  • An act of chicanery by W. G. Grace lit such a rocket of righteous indignation under the Australians that it propelled them to a remarkable victory. Dr William Gilbert Grace was the best cricketer of his age and for a good while after: “a portly all-rounder”, according to Simon Briggs in The Daily Telegraph, “who shared a beard with Rasputin and a moral code with Al Capone.” He might have invented both gamesmanship and sporting celebrity.


  • So fired up was the Australian fast-bowler Frederick ‘The Demon’ Spofforth (I kid you not) by the Doctor’s underhandedness that he took seven wickets for just 44 runs, and Australia won by a meagre six runs — to the shame and chagrin of the nation, the England team and its unfortunate captain A.N. ‘Monkey’ Hornby (really). Such was the tension in the closing minutes that one spectator keeled over with a fatal heart attack while another chewed clean through the handle of his bumbershoot.
  • Reginald Shirley Brooks — journalist, boulevardier, flâneur, bon viveur, lothario, gambler and man-whose-middle-name-was-Shirley — felt moved to publish this now infamous mock obituary in The Sporting Times:


  • A few months later the England team sailed to Australia to take up the cudgels once again. This time they were without W.G. Grace, who it might reasonably be assumed was omitted for fear of his bulk capsizing the ship or his extravagant beard fouling the propellor.


It seems that they took a splendid array of moustaches, though, and also the Honourable Ivo ‘Lemur’ Bligh (later 8th Earl of Darnby) as the new captain. Of the cricket team, not the ship.

And I made up the ‘Lemur’ part.

  • On arrival, Bligh announced “We have come to beard the kangaroo in his den, and to try to recover those ashes” (which they did) thus cementing the term in in the popular imagination (without the capital ‘A’ just yet). Presumably, though, forced marsupial facial hair never caught on.

During the tour, the Hon. I. Bligh fell for a music teacher called Florence Morphy, and she for him. So besotted was she that at a Christmas party she mischievously presented Bligh with a tiny perfume jar filled with real ashes which became and remains the manifestation of the whole metaphorical conceit.

Oh, and they got married the following year.

ashes 3

Here we have your Ashes ‘trophy’, Ricky ‘Punter’ Ponting (Australia) brandishing it, and Andrew ‘Fred’ Flintoff (England) desiring it.

The gentlemen are not giants: it really is that tiny. But that’s not the original, I have to confess, which never leaves the display case at Lord’s, the home of cricket. The ashes contained in that wee jar (which came to be renamed ‘the urn’, for a more Olympian and hairy image) are supposed to comprise, depending on who you believe, the burnt remnants of either a ball or a bail or a stump or a veil or, god help us, an Aborigine.

Most likely they are nothing of the sort and were just sweepings from the grate, or the mortal remains of one of Florence’s lacy lavender-soaked handkerchiefs.

So that’s the outline of the story of The Ashes as briefly as I can sketch it. Which is still pretty lengthy but does not even scratch the surface of more than a century of drama, intrigue, sporting heroism, athleticism, stoicism, bravery, diplomatic incidents, blood, moustaches and cake.

But there is one twist to the original Ashes gag that is often overlooked or not even known. A subtly macabre and satirical political point was being scored, which would have been obvious at the time but which soon became lost amidst the romanticism and mythology of the contest itself.

In the late 19th century the practice of human cremation was illegal. The father of Reginald Brooks, author of that sardonic obituary to English cricket, was Shirley Brooks (from whom Reginald bequeathed his middle name) who was also a journalist (and author and playwright). He became editor of the satirical magazine Punch but was also a fervent campaigner for the right to cremate.

Shirley Brooks helped to found the Cremation Society of England, which included amongst its membership such luminaries as Anthony Trollope. The Society issued a Declaration that began “We the undersigned disapprove the current custom of burying the dead, and we desire to substitute some mode which shall rapidly resolve the body into its component elements.” Apart from anything else, they reckoned that those ‘component elements’ would make splendid fertilizer.

Before sufficient pressure and opinion could be brought to bear on Parliament, however, Brooks Sr. died and was buried not burned.


The Australian cricket team arrived in 1882, just as a Captain Hanham from Dorset was asking for the Society to help him cremate two family members. The government said ‘no’ but he went ahead anyway, building his own crematorium, if you please, and avoided prosecution.

Frustrated at not having been able to fulfill his father’s wishes in the same way, Reginald Brooks grasped the opportunity to make his point in print while simultaneously deriding the national sport. To which I say: “Neat, huh?”

The combatants resuming hostilities on Thursday in the soggy English Midlands will mostly be unaware of this darker motif. Quite right, too. They need just concentrate on hurling that hard red ball at each other with extreme prejudice.


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The original Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (hereafter FHA) as described in the Book of Revelation were Conquest, War, Famine and Death.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Viktor Vasnetsov, 1887

Citing apocalyptic differences, Conquest left to launch a moderately successful solo career across the Roman Empire. Employing a new manager (Hades) the remaining band members found a new vocalist, Pestilence, and relaunched as FHA Mk II, touring the world and grossing 23 billion deaths.

Forgive my flight of fancy there, but I’m actually puzzled as to how ‘Conquest’ disappeared and became replaced by ‘Pestilence’ in popular culture. After all, we haven’t spurned the snake in the Garden of Eden in favour of the more fashionable crocodile; nor has society ditched Jonah’s whale for the scarier and more exciting great white shark. Then again, your man Jonah would have had dimmer prospects, I suppose, of Learning a Valuable Lesson and believably being coughed up onto some forlorn forgotten beach. While remaining in one piece, at least. Not that I buy the whole swallowed-by-a-grampus tale either, to be honest.

In these softer and more effete days of Western Civilization, perhaps the F H of the A are overdue a further makeover and revision to reflect our rather feeble and fragile sensibilities. Also, Pestilence, War, Famine and Death are far too dangerous for our increasingly litigious societies.

So here are a few suggestions for the toned-down members of the ALL NEW Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And I think this time there should be at least six of them:

A Bit of a Cough and Sniffle.

An Argument in a Bar with Some Pushing and Shoving.

Getting Stuck in an Elevator.

An Annoying Fly Trapped in the Double Glazing.

Feeling a Tad Peckish.

A Neighbourhood Dispute Regarding an Overhanging Shrub.

And instead of a White Horse, a Red Horse, a Black Horse and a Pale Horse, they’d ride in on a pink scooter, a red tricycle, a pogo-stick, a tandem and a Segway.


Why not come up with your own cast of health-and-safety-approved eschatological characters, too? And, hey, let’s make it a competition!

I believe I should add ‘yay!’

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We’re excitingly close to picking a winner for both this week’s Dark-and-Stormy-Hemingway contest and last week’s Word Verification Competition — remember that? I hope that you will forgive this unforgivable delay — if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. There’s still time to enter yesterday’s: type your brains in the comments of the post below.

I now need to ask a question. Was it just my father or did everybody’s parents, grandparents or vaguely creepy uncles relish relating that infinitely-nested, never-ending tale entitled “One Dark and Stormy Night“?

Here’s how it went:

“One dark and stormy night

Three men sat in a cave.

One said: “Jim — tell us a tale”,

And this is the tale he told them:

One dark and stormy night

Three men sat in a cave.

One said: “Jim — tell us a tale”,

And this is the tale he told them:

One dark and stormy night

Three men sat in a … ” ” ”

You get the idea.

I seem to remember being haunted by this saga at a very young age on holiday at Blake’s hotel, Broadstairs, in the county of Kent. My father took as inspiration a dark, brooding, shadowy and, frankly, pants-wettingly terrifying painting of three ne’er-do-wells huddled against the elements in the mouth of a cavern. Or ‘cave’, if you will. In my mind’s eye I can still readily conjure up the sepia, tobacco and shit-brown pigments of what I recall as a nightmarish scene reeking of foulness and unspeakable deeds of secret unpleasantness. Thanks, Dad.

I have seen a couple of variations on this endless quatrain but not many: so is or was this a parental meme, or has an original work of my father’s trickled, in very modest fashion, around the globe? He’d be very proud.

three men in a cave

Here are three men in cave, the best I can do for the inevitable figurative distraction. Evidently it’s Dr Gamelin from Orust, Customs Inspector Bundsen and Dr Robert Nordwall sharing a shot of something presumably tasty and alcoholic in a cave in Lysekil, Västra Götaland, Sweden, captured by Carl Curman in 1862. I’m willing to bet that they are enjoying the perks of friend Bundsen’s confiscatory trade.

Obviously it depicts neither the men nor the cave of the verse in question: nobody can look particularly frightening when they are dressed, as Dr Gamelin appears to be, like a glum Mr Pickwick.

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When Snoopy in his guise as ‘World Famous Author’ opened his manuscripts with the words “It was a dark and stormy night”, Charles Schultz was nodding towards the purplest of purple prose: that of the Victorian politician and novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.


In fact, Snoopy’s full text read thus:

It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.

Part 2: A light snow was falling, and the little girl with the tattered shawl had not sold a violet all day. At that very moment, a young intern at City Hospital was making an important discovery.

Which differs from Baron Lytton’s fiction in that it is far less florid and at least comprises short sentences, more akin, dare I say, to our old friend Ernest Hemingway, who will (eventually) prove to be significant in today’s competition.

Lucy provokes a couple of variations. His writing ‘lacks subtlety’, she complains, so: “It was a kind of dark and sort of stormy night…” And his ‘need to focus on characters more’ results in “He was a dark and stormy knight…”

And then there’s this:

not stormy

I digress.

Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel ‘Paul Clifford‘ (1830) with the following, now infamous, passage:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

paul clifford

As an aside, I prefer Terry Pratchett’s take on matters meteorological:

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night.

It should have been, but there’s the weather for you. For every mad scientist who’s had a convenient thunderstorm just on the night his Great Work is complete and lying on the slab, there have been dozens who’ve sat around aimlessly under the peaceful stars while Igor clocks up the overtime.” (Terry Prachett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens).

To give him his due — and to give him his full name while we’re at it — M’Lord Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, the first Baron Lytton, also coined phrases such as “the great unwashed” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Unfortunately, the latter aphorism is the reason I had to have a blood transfusion last month after that ill-conceived duel over a parking space. Thanks a bunch, Ted. Let me add my own apothegm: A Waterman is no match for an épée. As the fellow on the left here seems to be discovering.


Every year, San José University’s Department of English holds its Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, wherein entrants are invited to “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”. Read this year’s winning entry here.

And so to Goldfish Broth’s competition. Ernest Hemingway, lauded for his tight and compact prose, was once challenged to compose a story in just six words. Aside from (allegedly) winning $10, he also (allegedly) said that it was his best work. It’s certainly brilliantly poignant: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”

Wow, frankly.

So, if you’d like, I invite you to so the same. A short story in six words. And to either help you to narrow the subject down — or to make the whole operation even more difficult, I suppose — let’s make it around the theme of “A Dark and Stormy Night” (however loosely applied).

Have at it, wordsmiths. And I’ll be back as soon as I can with last week’s result.

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